Reconnecting with the spirit of the Sikh sangarsh: an interview with Bhai Daljit Singh
This condensed interview with Bhai Daljit Singh goes in depth regarding the Sikh jujharoo lehar (armed struggle) and the priorities before Sikh naujawan today. This introspective conversation touches on a number of key concepts and issues but most importantly, articulates a thoughtful perspective on the role of the Khalsa today and how we prepare for the next phase of the Sikh sangarsh. The full interview can be found in the June 2022 issue of Sikh Shahadat.
Kharku Sikh Sangarsh Di Sakhi (Part I & Part II) can be purchased from Bibekgarh Prakashan or their global partners. The audiobook can also be accessed by downloading the SikhSiyasat App (Apple and Google Play) for those who cannot read Punjabi.
Your [first] book, Kharku Sangarsh Di Sakhi, was recently published [in 2022]. As a leading figure of the armed struggle, why did you finally decide to share your memories and experiences in the movement after so long? What do you hope to achieve with this book?
I’ve been asked this question so many times, and I’ve asked myself as well - why haven’t I written about the movement before? So many of my friends and family had been pushing me to write something for years. I started writing so many times in the past but I wasn’t satisfied with the result. I lived the armed struggle for years but one of the challenges of writing about this movement was putting its essence into words… this was a huge challenge. Even to this day, the kharku sangarsh (armed struggle) hasn’t been understood properly by most people; its genuine essence has rarely been expressed and very few people have even come close to grasping it.
Since 1984, the Indian state’s narrative has largely dominated the public discourse that claims to analyze the causes and explanations underlying the Sikh sangarsh. Even those few Sikhs who tried to express our perspective were so influenced by and indoctrinated in modern/Western methodologies that they weren’t able to actually understand or articulate the essence of the kharku sangarsh on our own terms. I’ve always felt that most of the written work done about the movement so far has been completely disconnected from reality–and miles away from its core essence. This is also one of the reasons that publishing this book took so long; it was crucial that this story was finally told in an authentic way.
At the same time, it’s also true that some things are just meant to happen at a certain point in time no matter how hard you try earlier. After such a massive battle and countless shaheediyan, it can take time for people to genuinely reflect on and understand what transpired–even for those who lived through it all. I always felt this moral burden that out of so many jeevan vale (spiritually accomplished) companions and comrades–so few remain today. When I finally started writing again, I felt that it was especially important to write about those warriors who no one knows anything about.
In every movement and every war, there are countless people who literally become the very foundations on which everything else stands. Their sacrifices are not less than the formal leadership in any way–they are actually the ones who literally pave the way for the leadership to emerge in the first place. Their shahadat (martyrdom), the sacrifices they made and the torture they endured are difficult to put into words but nobody even knows who they are. I dedicated this first book to them.
It has been 38 years since June 1984, when you also joined the armed struggle. What are your thoughts on the Third Ghallughara?
When I think about June 1984, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale is unequivocally the focal point around which the entire history of ‘84 (and the subsequent movement) revolves. He was a historic figure who was sent with the Guru’s blessings… imbued with an intense enthusiasm/fervour for shahadat. I still remember during my university days, maybe around 1980 when Sant jee first came on to the scene… the 1978 massacre had happened, and Sant jee responded… I unconsciously began following Sant jee very closely after this.
The battle that Sant jee fought at Sri Akaal Takhat Sahib will go down as a legendary battle. It was so pivotal that it fundamentally changed the course of history, and history itself has revolved around this battle ever since. Sant jee’s shahadat (martyrdom) had such an impact on Sikh consciousness that the entire Sikh world went into a deep meditative state of ardaas (prayer/contemplation)–elders, mothers, women, children–everyone… I had never seen this before… It’s something that happens so rarely in the world. After such a long period… such difficult times… after 150 years of gulaami (slavery/subjugation), Sikhs began marching towards liberation again.
Their consciousness and actions began flowing in this direction again–this is exactly what Sant jee came to this world for. All the dust, dirt, and rust that had attached itself to our consciousness, our brains, tongues, minds and bodies–it all vanished in an instant. This flow of history began flowing with such intensity that it could never be stopped. To say that the movement was fought because of economic grievances, unemployment, the Green Revolution, or as a result of the interventions of Pakistan or the Congress party–these are all misguided explanations. Some of these may have been secondary or even tertiary factors but these are not the actual reason or explanation for our movement. Its essence is much more sublime.
What impact did Sant jee’s shahadat have on you and how did you come to the decision to join the Sikh struggle yourself?
After Sant jee’s shahadat (martyrdom), I felt like we had been handed a massive burden (responsibility). When three of us Singhs got together in the evening of June 6, it was crystal clear what we were to do next… We were almost about to complete our degrees; one of the Singhs had even been accepted into a university in the US… but at that moment it was absolutely clear what our path would be… At that time, war was to be our only Path… To settle accounts with those tyrants who invaded Sri Darbar Sahib, and take a stand against these atrocities. We were unequivocally clear that nothing short of armed struggle lay ahead. After Sant jee’s shahadat, the entire panth went into ardaas. It was this ardaas that brought us [Sikh jujharoos] to the forefront and we began walking on this path; without this collective consciousness, we were insignificant as individuals.
This is how naujawan (young people) were impacted and inspired towards armed struggle in the aftermath of 1984. Our entire virsa (heritage) and our entire history stood behind us… we were supported and sustained by the power of ardaas. People spontaneously and independently began forming jathay (units), organizations, and there were only a couple of objectives before us in the service of panth and granth–jang (war) and shahadat (martyrdom).
This was the path; the path of sacred and purifying violence. The epicentre of the armed struggle–what you can call the core–was made up of those Singhs, supporters and sympathizers for whom panth and granth were absolutely everything. Jang, shahadat, and achieving the highest ethics and spiritual life were everything. This battle at Sri Darbar Sahib was ordained by history itself–by Akaal Purakh… and the armed struggle naturally emerged out of this force of history.
What do you feel about life after the armed struggle?
The armed struggle was driven by our history and heritage, and it was naturally going to run its course… The Singhs spilled their blood, underwent immense difficulties and physical pain, offered their lives, achieved great feats in battle, and confronted our enemy squarely on the battlefield–striking fear in their hearts. Despite the most difficult circumstances, we fought this struggle for ten years–something which was thought to be impossible given our conditions (this movement defied the logic and every belief about guerrilla warfare in terrain like Punjab). In that sense, this outward form of the struggle was inevitably going to fade one day, but the struggle itself never ended and it still continues today. That period of armed struggle lasted for however long Guru Sahib blessed us with the seva (service); all of us were nothing more than vehicles to manifest these blessings. We were blessed to be selected for this seva and thousands of our companions were blessed with shahadat… I have no idea how I survived… or why I survived.
Sometimes I think, maybe I survived to tell this tale. After the armed struggle, I spent a considerable period in jail–that was another form of sangarsh on its own. I’ve never been able to separate myself or take a step back from this struggle though. Even after my release, we remained active in whatever way possible, and focussed on popular mobilization by reconnecting with people at the grassroots. I was then arrested again and spent more time in jail. At this point, we reflected on our experiences and the work ahead of us. We shifted tack and began working behind the scenes in order to develop and strengthen the real assets of the panth in every sphere possible. Spheres like academia/philosophy, developing organizational infrastructure–everything we need for the next phase of the struggle. With this strategy in mind, we continue moving forward–the jang (battle) is still being fought.
What do the naujawan engaged in panthic activism today need to keep in mind?
I feel that after the armed struggle came to a standstill, the logical next phase for the Khalsa panth was for naujawan to reflect on their responsibilities to fulfill the role of the Khalsa today. Looking at our current circumstances, there is a vacuum in Sikh leadership while global order/institutions all around us are crumbling. Everything around us is in the process of being restructured and no one is paying careful attention to how this relates to and impacts the panth… There is instability everywhere and old concepts, systems and structures [ie. liberal democracy, “development”, global institutions etc] are all facing a deep, internal crisis.
Surveying all of this, the world is clearly in need of alternatives–and the Khalsa has a massive contribution to make in this sphere. The values of gurmat and the Khalsa are not limited to Sikhs only; Guru Sahib has blessed us with concepts and a worldview that engages fundamental questions asked by humanity all around the world. This is why today’s naujawan have a responsibility to theorize and articulate the concepts of gurmat in a global perspective; to present and disseminate these ideas, and most importantly–to actually manifest these values in their own lives. I’m completely confident that the naujawan have this capacity, even more than before and they will fulfill this task.
In light of the global crises we’re seeing today, naujawan need to think about answering fundamental questions in light of the teachings and praxis of Sri Guru Granth Sahib jee, and the Guru Khalsa Panth; how do we live a meaningful life? what kind of society and social structures do we need to establish in today’s world? what kind of governance models and political structures do we need today? When there is a crisis in every direction–a moral crisis, economic crisis, ecological crisis, political crisis, cultural crisis, existential crisis… there is so much suspicion and skepticism that nobody trusts or believes in anything anymore [there is a lack of consensus and collective action]... In this context, our faith in Akaal Purakh has been articulated and manifested by Guru Granth Sahib jee and the Guru Khalsa Panth; not just in theory, but tangibly throughout our history.
From this perspective, Sant jee’s clash with the Delhi takhat (throne) was more significant than a simple local clash; this was a broader clash with the materialistic throne of this [modern/Western] world. Sant jee fought this sangarsh to reignite Sikh consciousness in today’s world… the true consciousness of the Khalsa… As a result, we have the responsibility to live those ideals and values. Examples of this are the langars Sikhs erected during the pandemic and the role of the panth during the Kisaan Morcha (Farmers’ Struggle). These examples demonstrate a clash with the current liberal order and illustrate the alternative model of society-polity manifested by Guru Sahib.
These examples illustrate that there are so many opportunities around us. The Khalsa has deep reservoirs of limitless potential. The only question is whether we recognize our essence… whether we recognize who we really are, return to our roots to unlock this potential and develop these alternatives. We need to stay rooted in our history and traditions given to us by Guru Granth-Guru Panth, and from this position intervene in the issues plaguing the world and humanity to provide our perspectives and alternatives. This is a major responsibility we bear, and when we look back at June 84 this is why it is significant (ie. Sant jee’s life and shahadat exemplified an alternative paradigm of society-polity rooted in the essence of the Khalsa).
What approach do we need to take with regards to the leadership crisis facing the panth today?
Look, the vacuum we see within our current leadership structures–in both dharmik and political spheres–is very grave. This vacuum has existed for some time now. After ‘84, Sikhs rejected the established leadership of the Akalis at the time, primarily through the Sarbat Khalsa. But after this period, the Indian state reimposed its own political and dharmik leadership through force–primarily through Akali Dal Badal. Badal was established as a Sikh leader by controlling both the SGPC and the governance of Sri Akaal Takhat Sahib.
The period we are going through right now is incredibly tumultuous; there are so many drastic changes happening around the entire world. Our own region is going through massive shifts, putting us in a very sensitive situation. It's imperative that we strengthen our internal [panthic] leadership structures in these circumstances, and Punjab’s leadership also needs to be strengthened and brought back on track.
The most fundamental thing is strengthening the foundation and power centre of the Khalsa panth by freeing the governance of Sri Akaal Takhat Sahib from electoral politics and parties. The governance of our institutions should be entrusted to the Khalsa itself, as it has been in the past during the eras of Akali Phoola Singh, Baba Deep Singh, or Sant Jarnail Singh. During the movement, the Kharku Singhs themselves fulfilled that role. Even now, those elements of the Khalsa that are dedicated to nishkam (selfless) struggle, that are not tied to any faction or party, and entirely committed to the panth should be entrusted with the responsibility and governance of Sri Akaal Takhat Sahib. Through the institutions of gurmatta and Sarbat Khalsa, we can then revive and strengthen our traditional institutions of power and governance. Local gurdwaras, gurmatta, Sarbat Khalsa, and panch pradhani (collective) leadership need to be revitalized and reorganized today to ground the panth’s authority and political power.
In conclusion, what message would you like to give to Sikh naujawan today?
We need to organize and prepare for the struggle ahead. At this point in time, it’s very important for panthic naujawan to work on two planes simultaneously.
One is on an individual level; each person, each naujawan, needs to introspect and reflect on where they are in their journey, their responsibilities towards their family, society and panth, and in accordance with that responsibility they need to work on developing their own balance and discipline in their body, mind and soul. We need to genuinely reconnect with the Guru; we need to read and understand what is going on around us, and gain unique skill sets to create effective, well-rounded personalities. The second thing is to reconnect with your local sangat, and become organized in any way possible. This may be at a village level or around your local gurdwara or around some kind of social issue; the fundamental thing is to become organized.
The current systems of order and structure are facing a crisis across the region, and the broader world. For this reason, the Khalsa, and naujawan especially, must create local jathay (units), organize the sangat and create local autonomous zones or systems of autonomous self-government. Our gurdwara can be the centre of these efforts and other communities should be included in this network as well. Our responsibility is to fight for everyone; there is no external or “Other” in Sikh philosophy and political theory. Once you organize on a local level and these units organize, then we can come together under the collective leadership of Sri Akaal Takhat Sahib to organize for the next phase of this sangarsh. From this position of power, things will take their course in a natural flow but these are some of the foundational tasks that naujawan need to commit to right now.